Event review: CODA presents The Pirates of Penzance

By - Wednesday 9th August, 2017

Buckles were swashed, blades were brandished and spirits undampened by the weather

Photo by Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association, used with permission.

Croydon’s been lucky with the rain so far this summer, sunshine-y at just the right moments for its outdoor festivities. This was the week that luck ran out, with grey drizzly skies hanging over Wandle Park as Friday evening’s Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association show time approached. But no matter  – the audience had come impressively prepared with cagoules, fleeces, flasks, stout boots and in one case, bin liners into which to insert their legs (respect).

And it was worth it. The Pirates of Penzance romps along, tiddly-pomming like mad and cheering everyone up whatever the weather. Wandle Park bandstand’s a perfect spot for entertainment and this year it really did look lovely with streams of lights flowing down from its roof to the ground and around the park to guide visitors to the exit and the lavatories.

Singing, pelvis-rotating and climbing round a bandstand all at once

Staging there also brings challenges. Director Morven Rae mentions in the programme that performing in the round was ‘a very interesting exercise’ and captures quite a lot in those four words: which way to face, the location of plants, the need for 360 degrees of surround-sound and, when the cast is big and the space is small, the risk of milling about. But all was well: the policemen plodded with precision, the sisters giggled and danced and the pirates swashbucklingly clambered all over the railings.

The cast was super, with star of the night award going to Errol Flynn (aka Bob Wilson) as the pirate king (he also won costume of the night for his splendid scarlet sash and swordplay of the night for some fearsome brandishing). Mabel (Alessandra Ludlam) sang really well (her opening sounds especially difficult) as the tumble-haired love interest; her funniest and most subversive moment, though, was a less than enthusiastic reaction to Frederic’s plea that they wait until 1940 to consummate their union (Pirates premiered in 1879). Chris Wadden as Frederic made singing, pelvis-rotating and climbing around a bandstand all at once look easy, and his duet about love and betrayal with Ruth (Vicky Watkins) was touching.

Photo by Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association, used with permission.

Ruth is a bit of a problem. Vicky Watkins gave a strong performance as the older woman rejected, but it’s hard for a modern audience to find this funny since it’s blatantly just about age and looks. (Anyway – she’s forty-seven: does young Frederic not appreciate a cougar?) His cruelty, though due to inexperience, makes the leading man unlikeable. It was nicely resolved by bringing Ruth back later as a swaggering pirate, having realised that playing victim to a callous young buck is no way to go. Better bucks are doubtless to be had in this riotous band.

There are other glimpses of darkness: the pirates’ enthusiasm for marrying the sisters (“against our wills!’ as they chorus) is tricky if you think about it, and Gilbert and Sullivan have more sarcastic intent in their writing than its jollity suggests, taking darts at jingoism and enthusiasm for war. (1879 must have been that sort of year, with the Anglo-Zulu wars, the Afghan wars, Rorke’s Drift and the battle of Isandlwana). And the title’s ‘pirates’ was itself a jibe at those responsible for unauthorised productions of their earlier works which had paid them no royalties.

But the lasting fun is in the words, those tongue-twisting, rapid-fire lyrics known as ‘patter songs’ of which this show contains some of G and S’s finest. It’s hard to beat ‘a first-rate opportunity/To get married with impunity/And indulge in the felicity/Of unbounded domesticity’ coming over clear and precise, out of doors, in the round, in the rain. Well done! More!

You can find out more about CODA’s future productions here.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Rosie E

    Haha though I quite agree about the challenge of the ‘ancient’ Ruth for modern audiences..
    For Thursday’s performance the rain had jsut stoped so each audience member was handed a square of kitchen towel to wipe the seats.. not terribly piratical but oh so practical.. Resepct for that too!

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Salute to all who combine the flame of creativity with such delightful attention to detail ;)

  • blath8@googlemail.com

    Another terrific performance! Being performed in the round was hugely entertaining and ensured that the whole audience saw some close-up acting, singing and also got to admire the fab costumes. Looking forward to next year – check out “Into the Woods” in October at Stanley Halls.